A volunteer’s perspective
Feature: Mike Lawrence
Introduction: Ada Natoli
We are now coming up to about 8 months of continuous field work along the Dubai Coastline, and we could have never done this without so many of you that were willing to dedicate their time and come on board. Field work as much as it can sound fun, is tough! It implies starting in the early ours of the morning to capture the calm sea, continuously scanning the sea for hours on end in search of any glimpse of fins, in these summer months challenging ridiculous temperatures, and yes, there are times that we simply come back without seeing anything, not even a fish! but still with a load of crucial data to add to our database. But it takes one sighting to forget all the
This is a contribution of one of our most loyal volunteers that even travelled all the way from Abu Dhabi every morning to join the research boat. We can never be thankful enough to Mike as well as all the volunteers that dedicated their time to support the project!
Tuesday 29th April, I went out as a volunteer working for the UAE Dolphin Project from the Dubai Marina Yacht Club, for the first time. We spent the day on the Dolphin Research boat out at sea about 5 miles off The Palm Jumeriah, looking for dolphins. Absolutely brilliant!
Very little is known about much of the animal wildlife off the Dubai/Abu Dhabi coast, so this is still initial research to find out about what is actually doing well and what is doing badly, especially with all the coastal building work, island-making and basically pushing the land out into the sea, that goes on most of the time. A few dolphins had been spotted by various water based craft over the months of November to February, but there were no sightings last month so the lead researcher was getting quite worried and when we set off at dawn this morning we weren’t expecting much, but the research was vital even if we just drew a blank. If the cetaceans had gone or were declining, then maybe there could be money available to do something to set up a protected reserve etc, to try to give them a fighting chance.
Dr Ada Natoli leads the research and headed todays trip with 3 volunteers; myself (an Educational Developer from the UK), a Canadian Freelance Photographer and an Italian Freelance Events Manager; on a 30ft speedboat, Duretti Sportfisher. We set off at a steady 5 knots out of the harbour to follow the transects over the main area of interest that we would cover today. As volunteers, our job was to sit at the front of the boat and keep an eye out for signs of possible dolphin activity, and as the sun rose (given it was already 25 degrees before the suns warmth broke through), the sea was very calm, making it good for fin spotting etc. Coming out of Dubai Marina it was just so picturesque and beautifully sunny that we just thought we would make the most of our boat outing, even if all we saw was sea, and we would just report our route and note our observations!
At that time in the morning there was loads of fish activity near the sea-surface, and lots of fish jumping with very interested cormorants and terns focusing on the water surface, so there was plenty to keep us entertained.
About an hour or so in, we hit it lucky and Brunella spotted some fins to the north of us, as we were heading west. We gradually drew closer and noticed that it was a good sized pod of bottlenose dolphins. They were strung out in line and were travelling north at about 5 – 8 kph. We were about 5 kilometre off shore roughly in between ‘Atlantis, The Palm’ and the ‘Burj Al Arab’. We reckoned there were at least 24 individuals with several juveniles and 2 calves in this particular group. Our research-leader kept a sensitive distance, to minimise disruption to the pod, but sure enough, it wasn’t long until some of them came curiously over to check us out and play around the boat. As well as observing the school, another of the volunteers job was to capture pictures of dorsal fins, so that they can be identified, and we spent more than an hour with this particular group. The calves seemed to be practicing tail slaps and were also jumping clean out of the water. We also recorded our GPS position, water depth, water clarity and temperature, as part of the research data collection. We also took notes about their activities etc. Dr Natoli could identify a couple of the larger fins from earlier trip photos from last year, but there were numerous new individuals as well.
After that early morning excitement, the researchers were really made up and had loads of new material to add to their research. We headed back to our planned transect and continued our horizon-scanning to both sides to see what else we could see. During the next hour we saw a couple of sea-snakes and a large green turtle, which were pretty cool, seemingly out in the middle of nowhere.
About another 30 minutes then someone spotted what they thought were some fins about a kilometre away at 4 o’clock (relative to boat). Sure enough, getting closer we noticed another pod of bottlenose dolphins. Totally different characteristics and behaviour with this group at this time. There were about 22 dolphins, all very closely packed that were very sedate and slow, probably resting/half sleeping. You would see lots of fins, and slow breathing, with most of the group coming up to breath at the same time, then they would all disappear for a minute or two and the waters would seem totally still again. Eventually they would surface again as a united group in a tight knit group. It was good to get lots of fin pictures to help with identification etc. After about half an hour or so the group started becoming more active and broke away into three specific groups, and seemed to be feeding. Again, some of the group came over to explore the boat and swim along side in typical dolphin fashion.
This really was quite unusual seeing so many dolphins (in two separate pods) on the one trip, and we were really lucky on this occasion. We then returned back to the planned transect to continue the course of observation around midday, but the sea surface was starting to get a little choppy and under such conditions it was difficult to spot fins breaking the surface. We decided to head back to Dubai Marina about 1pm, with a whole raft of data and photos to wade through. Definitely, a day I shall not forget in a hurry.
Wednesday 7th May, my follow up Dolphin Research trip, was very different to the first, and quietly exciting. We left Dubai Marina, and headed up under The Palm Jumeirah bridges, hugging the shore, then followed a transect zigzagging up to Dubai Creek, with the World Islands to the left and Burj Khalifa on the right. Two large green turtles and three sea snakes later, we spotted something gently rising above the surface. A dark curved back, but no dorsal fin! We had come across a small school of finless porpoises – 4 adults, (we counted) including one mother with a calf clinging to her back. They are pretty difficult to spot and are quite timid, preferring to keep a safe distance between them and the boat. They were feeding on the numerous shoals of very small fish close to the shore. We carefully followed them for a couple of hours, but obviously most of the photos looked just like a tyre floating in the sea. Lol. It was tricky to predict where they would come up after their dive down, but absolutely fascinating, especially as not much is known about this species. I can’t wait for the next opportunity to go out again – whatever it may bring!
Sunday 18th May and my 3rd venture out with Dubai Dolphin Research came up with some very memorable sights, although, this time, we didn’t see any dolphins! The early morning sea surface was relatively ripple free, but with a slight undulation that made the boat feel like it was gently riding repetitive speed humps. The transect today covered the area from The Palm Jumeirah down to Jebel Ali from close to shore to about 5 miles out. With such a smooth sea it was fairly easy to see anything rising above the surface, but today, at least, it appeared that the dolphins must have been elsewhere! There were, however, numerous sea snake sightings and a lot of sea turtle activity to make up for it. Most of the sea snakes observed close to the boats trajectory were basking juveniles, who quickly wiggled down into deeper water when our boat (and its wake) disturbed them. Very little appears to be known of the UAE sea snakes, but what little information available says that sea snakes are the most venomous of the world’s snakes. One drop of sea snake venom is reputed to have the potency to kill five men. This high toxicity enables them to disable their cold-blooded prey, such as fish, crabs and squid on which they feed. Even young sea snakes, that are born live at sea, have a venom as potent as any adult. So it was good to watch them from the boat! As for the turtles, most of the adults disappear under the surface if they think you are too near but we saw perhaps 6 sightings of curious heads, followed by shell and flippers as they dove down. A brown shelled juvenile snacking on jelly fish was more curious than the older and wiser adults, and did allow us to observe it for about a minute before disappearing.
Shortly after this, we saw a small (perhaps 1year old) turtle floating near the surface. We slowed and circled back around to see what it was doing. This little chap didn’t seem to be diving down, so we approached cautiously to notice that the poor little might was covered in barnacles, which, as parasites, affect the animals buoyancy and makes it difficult to dive down. We brought the boat along side and gently scooped him out of the sea. He was heavily covered and needed some specialised cleaning. The dolphin lead researcher would take him to the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre in Jumeirah, where they can carefully remove the infestation without damaging its shell. Apparently, this is done by repeated bathing in fresh water, as it kills the barnacles. He was a young Hawksbill turtle (about 8″ diameter carapace) and we kept him safe on the trip home in a round washing up bowl. Admittedly not very dignified, but our intentions were sound.
More sea snake sighting to add to our day, then in the distance Brunella spotted a darker glistening round shape, just rising above the surface. We focused on where it had been seen and headed towards to have a closer look. Throught the binoculars, it was concluded that it was probably an animal at the surface – but no dorsal fins! Getting closer we could see a flipper, then another flipper – oh dear was the response it looks like it is a dead turtle with two flippers in the air. We slowed right down, but soon noticed that there was definitely activity, so it definitely wasn’t dead – in fact it was a pair of large green turtles mating. We kept our distance as they obviously had their minds on other things and we didn’t wish to disturb them. Soon, one of them noticed the boat and dived down, but the other kept circling with its head looking down at its mate below. The two then forgot about the boat and got back to their courtship. We gently edged back and left them in peace. It was a great relief to know that it wasn’t a dead animal and that they were actively participating to increase their numbers. Our trip ended with us heading back to Dubai Marina with the mission to drop off our young hawksbill, at the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Centre (Jumeirah) for a health check and a good clean up.
Wednesday 21st May 6am at Dubai Marina – just two of us for this trip, but we still decide to go out. The sea was not particularly calm but the offshore wind was forecast to drop a little later, so we decide it is worth a shot. Todays transect was north of The Palm and up to Dubai Creek, but only out as far as The World Islands breakwater. The surface of the sea this morning could be bestdescribed as having large wavelets where crests were just beginning to break. This was going to be tricky as out of the corner of your eye, lots of waves could look very much like potential fins! Still it was a lovely morni
ng and what a fantastic backdrop for a boat-trip. With each of us scanning our respective halves of ocean between boat and horizon, we did notice several flocks of terns diving down to feed on the large shoals of fish, but unfortunately not much else. On the 3rd leg of the transect we came in close to the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club, where the sea was slightly calmer, we kept scanning, when “fin at 2 o’clock!” – or was it just a trick of the waves? We gently moved in closer to have a better look. Not an easy task, but yes it was a fin belonging to a humpback dolphin. From what we could make out it was a small group of 3 animals, and one was a calf. A tail slap signalled that they were not happy with us being in their area. They seemed to be feeding, with their paths not being predictable, and trying to capture photos at their next surfacing position was difficult. The youngster performed a leap out of the water but the adults were not seeking such attention. We managed to follow them for about 8 or 9 surfacings, then they gave us the slip, and the sea returned to playing wave tricks with our eyes.
Unfortunately the wind didn’t ease and as we continued up towards the Creek, we soon realised that it was to difficult to spot anything else, but we knew we were so lucky to have seen the small family group of humpback dolphins in such sea conditions. We returned to the Marina around 10.30am.